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Vivian Nutton and the Renaissance

April 14, 2011

Celebrating Vivian Nutton – by Nancy G Siraisi

Others are more qualified than I to write of Vivian Nutton as a classicist and a historian of ancient medicine whose contributions range from editions (with accompanying translation and commentary) of texts of Galen in the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, through interpretive articles on aspects of Galen’s medical teaching, to the comprehensive monograph Ancient Medicine, in which Nutton draws on sources of many kinds to trace what can be known of medical ideas and practice in the ancient Mediterranean world over many centuries.

My own knowledge of Nutton and his work has been primarily through his numerous contributions to the history of Renaissance and early modern medicine. From an early stage in his career, Nutton has, in addition to his studies of Galen and of ancient medicine, simultaneously turned his attention to the subsequent development of medicine in western Europe. The focus of his interest in this area has been the 15th and 16th centuries, when expanded knowledge of Greek philosophical, scientific and medical texts had a powerful impact on medical education and ideas. Nutton’s monograph John Caius and the manuscripts of Galen and numerous of his articles rest on deep knowledge of manuscripts and early printed editions of Renaissance medical writings. Yet with Renaissance and early modern (as with ancient) medicine, Nutton’s work is far from being narrowly textual. His is a remarkable and unusual combination of expertise in both ancient and Renaissance/early modern studies and in both philological and historical scholarship.

On a more personal note, I first met him some time in the early 1980s, though I can no longer remember the date or occasion. At that time, although my training was as a medievalist, my interests were coming more and more to centre on the history of medicine in the Renaissance and, especially, the 16th century. A few years later, when Michael McVaugh and I were given the opportunity to edit a volume of essays on the history of medicine for the History of Science Society’s annual Osiris, we sought to bridge the late Middle Ages and the 16th century. Thus, we were especially pleased when Nutton, whose work continued to open up new areas of medical history to me, agreed to contribute an article. Shortly thereafter, he was able to participate in person in a workshop on ‘Renaissance Natural Philosophy and the Disciplines’, at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology (then at MIT), organised by Anthony Grafton and me. And from throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when I travelled to Europe for research or conferences, I recall many discussions with Nutton at the Wellcome Institute about research topics of mutual interest. I know that I was only one of many visitors from abroad who benefited from his learning, his encouragement and his commitment to pre-modern medical history as an international field of scholarship.

Professor Nancy G Siraisi is Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, USA.

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